Njeri Watkins is passionate about helping entrepreneurs at every stage of their journey.

She comes by that passion honestly: As a seventh-generation member of a foundational Black community in Nova Scotia, Watkins, of Njeri Watkins Consulting, says she grew in up a community that was steadfast in its support for Black business leaders and entrepreneurs.

“We tend to be trailblazers, because of our historical component – a lot of the Black firsts in Canada have come out of Nova Scotia. I do very much walk with and stand on the shoulders of that confidence and leadership,” she says.

“That’s where I can see so many strong women in my community that have literally been the first in their industries while making amazing progress. From that perspective, I have a lot of role models, a lot of ‘Black first women’ in my community specifically. That’s given me a lot of strength and foundation in my approach to the business world.”

In her work as a business consultant and analyst, Vancouver-based Watkins is called upon by a broad array of entrepreneurs and business leaders for her expertise across a variety of topics. In any given week, she might be aiding businesses with their COVID pivot strategies, counseling impact leaders looking to enter the digital space, helping successful entrepreneurs transition smoothly out of the companies they helped build, and even coaching business leaders on how to project confidence in the era of Zoom calls.

But Watkins also works with entrepreneurs who have only just taken that first leap – including mentoring young entrepreneurs through the Futurpreneur program.

Watkins first learned about Futurpreneur when a young couple she’d mentored through another program put her name forward as a potential mentor. In the six or so years since, she’s worked with a number of businesses in the education and technology fields. Most recently, she’s mentored the entrepreneur behind Ace It Tutoring, a coworking-style study space aimed at helping high school students complete their homework with onsite tutors in a distraction-free environment.

Watkins says she didn’t have formal mentors early in her career: “Part of that was because in the era I grew up in, there weren’t a lot of mentorship programs,” she says.

And career coaching, which was often geared at well-established individuals looking to switch careers, was expensive and difficult to access.

In 2008, she completed a consulting certificate program, and positioned herself as a coach, focusing on career progression for workers in digital media, marketing and creative industries.

Later, she started teaching digital marketing and data analytics at UBC’s Sauder School of Business: “It seemed like a natural progression – helping people understand social media, personal branding, communications.” (Today, she says, many of her students are actively pursuing self-employment and entrepreneurship as a career path.)

Watkins’ strong background in data analytics has helped her to steer newly minted entrepreneurs toward understanding the role data can play in growing their business – a concept she urges companies of all sizes to embrace.

“I think that the biggest challenge that entrepreneurs face is, once they finish their business plan and start to execute, they realize digital marketing, social media, and having an engagement strategy are a lot more challenging than they anticipated,” she says.

“It’s so important to build a data-driven culture – you have to have everyone asking, at all levels, what is the problem you want data to solve?”

Though Watkins is generous with her time and expertise, she says her mentees also provide her with something valuable: Insight into the next big waves in tech and entrepreneurship.

“I love being able to really stay on the cusp of trends, especially with Futurpreneur and through working with tech innovators. To play a small part in providing solutions to some of the big problems we’re having in society is really exciting for me,” she says.

She’s also grateful for the opportunity to make an impact on the startup ecosystem.

“I may not have grown a company worth $100 million, but I feel it’s extremely rewarding to have made a contribution to companies that have, collectively, impacted a lot of lives,” she says.

“My personal mission of supporting impact leaders, people who value ROI as much as they do return on impact, can be fulfilled through mentorship – especially through Futurpreneur. This next generation of impact leaders – millennials in particular – are really going to shape the world in a way that I am 100% behind.”

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS

Watkins acknowledges that the more recent availability of mentorship – particularly through structured programs like Futurpreneur, which “helps on so many levels” – will help pave the way for more women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of colour.

That’s particularly important, since traditional business advice or existing supports often don’t take the needs of those groups into consideration, she says.

Taking someone successful out to lunch, for example, is often touted as a great way to get a mentor: “That’s really great advice for a young man, but telling a young woman to go to an older man and invite him to lunch can turn into a very different situation,” she says.

“There are so many social dynamics at play that won’t resonate with a woman, let alone a Black woman … Not to marginalize us as women, but I do think we need to have more evolved strategies that really speak to the real world of how we will navigate the entrepreneurial ecosystem as a woman.”

Meanwhile, institutional support for Black women entrepreneurs is even more scarce. Watkins says that up until last year, she wasn’t aware of a single large-scale program that catered specifically to Black women entrepreneurs.

“A lot happened in 2020, and I think that’s opened some doors,” she adds.

Watkins adds that she’s heartened that the business world now seems more broadly prepared to tackle issues of gender and race: “What I’ve seen in the past year, there are so many efforts in place to just create a new normal. I’m so empowered, emboldened, excited to see what I see right now taking place.

“I know 2020 was a challenging year, but I’ve seen so much introspection, reflection and connection on a human level, that common ground of: ‘We want this to be a beautiful world. We want to work together harmoniously.’ And we can do that.”

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